Cancer Prevention Coalition’s Response to Obama’s Nomination of the Director of the National Cancer Institute

Chicago – Statement from the Cancer Prevention Coalition:

“The NCI has become what amounts to a government pharmaceutical company.”
Last Wednesday, the White House nominated Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus as Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

As a key advisor to President Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign, Varmus was subsequently appointed Co-Chairman of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He was previously President of the New York Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Varmus has a distinguished track record in basic research on cancer treatment. However, this is paralleled by lack of familiarity with mounting scientific evidence on cancer prevention. Two decades ago, he claimed, “You can’t do experiments to see what causes cancer—it’s not an accessible problem, and not the sort of thing scientists can afford to do—everything you do can’t be risky.”

In 1995, Varmus, then Director of the National Institutes of Health, struck the “reasonable pricing clause,” protecting against exorbitant industry profiteering from the sale of drugs, developed with tax payer money. Varmus also gave senior NCI staff free license to consult with the cancer drug industry.

In this connection, the 2008 edition of Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report listed Dr. Varmus with a compensation package of about $2.7 million. This is the highest compensation of over 500 major non-profit organizations ever monitored.

As a past major recipient of NCI funds for basic genetic research, Varmus warned that “reasonable pricing” clauses, protecting against exorbitant industry profiteering from drugs developed with tax-payer dollars, were driving away private industry. So he struck these from agreements between industry and the NCI. As a consequence, Varmus eliminated any price controls on cancer drugs made at the tax-payer expense.

Illustratively, using taxpayers’ money, NCI paid for the research and development of Taxol, an anticancer drug, later manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb. Following completion of clinical trials, an extremely expensive process in itself, the public paid again for developing the drug’s manufacturing process. Once completed, NCI officials gave Bristol-Myers Squibb the exclusive right to sell Taxol at an inflationary price. As investigative journalist, Joel Bleifuss, warned in a 1995 In These Times article, “Bristol-Myers Squibb sells Taxol to the public for $4.87 per milligram, which is more than 20 times what it costs to produce.” Taxol has been a blockbuster for Bristol-Myers, posting sales of over $3 billion since its approval in 1992, and accounting for about 40 percent of the company’s sales.

Taxol was not the only drug involved in such funding practices. Bristol-Myers Squibb now sells nearly one-third of the approximately thirty-five cancer drugs currently available, often with highly inflated profits, and often developed with taxpayer funds. In 1995, Varmus, a past major recipient of NCI funds for basic genetic research, decided that “reasonable pricing” clauses, protecting against profiteering from drugs developed with taxpayer dollars, were driving away private industry. So he struck these from pricing clauses.

Taxol was not an isolated example. Taxpayers have funded NCI’s research and development for over two-thirds of all cancer drugs now on the market. In a surprisingly frank admission, Samuel Broder, NCI Director from 1989 to 1995, stated the obvious: “The NCI has become what amounts to a government pharmaceutical company.” Nobel Laureate Leland Hartwell, President of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, endorsed Broder’s criticism. He further stressed that most resources for cancer research are spent on “promoting ineffective drugs” for terminal disease. In this connection, Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Leonard Saltz estimated that the price for new biotech drugs “has increased 500-fold in the last decade.” Furthermore, the U.S. spends five times more than the U.K. on cancer chemotherapy per patient, although survival rates are similar.

As an expert in cancer treatment, Varmus appears unaware that almost 700 carcinogens, to some of which the public is periodically or regularly exposed, have been identified by independent scientists. He also seems to be unaware that the more cancer is prevented the less there is to treat.

On June 15, 2009, a letter to Congressional leaders urging drastic reform of the Obama Cancer Plan to mandate prevention, besides urging the annual publication of a public registry of carcinogens, was released by the five scientists listed below. This letter also listed seven cancers, summarized their avoidable causes, and their increasing incidence since 1975, based on 2005 NCI data:

  • Malignant melanoma (mortality) of the skin in adults has increased by 168% due to the use of sunscreens in childhood that fail to block long wave ultraviolet light;
  • Thyroid cancer has increased by 124% due in large part to ionizing radiation;
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has increased by 76% due mostly to phenoxy herbicides; and phenylenediamine hair dyes;
  • Testicular cancer has increased by 49% due to pesticides; hormonal ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products; and estrogen residues in meat;
  • Childhood leukemia has increased by 55% due to ionizing radiation; domestic pesticides; nitrite preservatives in meats, particularly hot dogs; and parental exposures to occupational carcinogens;
  • Ovary cancer (mortality) for women over the age of 65 has increased by 47% in African American women and 13% in Caucasian women due to genital use of talc powder;
  • Breast cancer has increased by 17% due to a wide range of factors. These include: birth control pills; toxic hormonal ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products; diagnostic radiation; and routine premenopausal mammography, with a cumulative breast dose exposure of up to about five rads over ten years.

However, and as an expert in cancer treatment, Varmus is unlikely to be aware of such scientific evidence, which was not widely recognized until relatively recently.

Based on recent estimates by the National Institutes of Health, the total costs of cancer are about $219 billion each year. The annual costs to taxpayers of diagnosis and treatment amounts to $89 billion; the annual costs of premature death are conservatively estimated at $112 billion; and the annual costs due to loss of productivity are conservatively estimated at $18 billion. The human costs surely are of far greater magnitude. Much of these costs could be saved by cancer prevention.